When you think about going abroad or hosting an exchange student, the first words that likely come to mind are “adventure” or “language”. Both language and adventure (and more!) will be a part of the experience, but maybe not in the way you expect. What often stands out the most at the end of it all is sharing meals, playing games, or going to school. You can be surprised at how impactful these seemingly ordinary experiences are! You’ll come to understand that daily routines are just as important as having extraordinary experiences in a new country.
Why is studying abroad and hosting so impactful? Rather than going on a tour of another country, you’re integrating new cultures and perspectives into your life. One of the most important parts of an exchange experience is human connection. A great way to develop human connection is through everyday activities. How often do you think about your daily life? Not very often most likely, but daily life in another country or another family’s home can be very different and bring up a variety of questions. Sometimes, we forget about daily life and opt to dream about the extraordinary, but it’s amazing how much we can learn from the ordinary.
As a host parent, it can be challenging to wonder what hosting will be like, how your host student will fit into your family, and how to spend time with them. For the most part, all of these feelings of excitement and anticipation are answered through daily activity and treating the student as if they’ve been in the family even before they arrived at the airport. A host family provides support and connection for students, which is why enjoying everyday life together is so important.
Many host parents find sharing daily life with their hosted students to be the most impactful and memorable experience.
Michelle Kulas, an AFS Host Parent, described her experience hosting multiple AFS exchange students. She found that she has grown as a parent and global citizen in her own right by experiencing everyday life with her hosted students. Her extended family has grown substantially through the AFS students she’s hosted, and it shows how much we connect with others daily by eating meals together, playing games together, and supporting each other. In this blog post, she discusses how it’s perfectly okay to be a normal, “boring” family because it is not the goal of the program to entertain students, but rather to integrate them into a family in their host country. That way, they can make connections and experience the culture of their host country in its purest form.
Sheri Belton-Gonzalez found from her experience, as both an exchange student and host parent, that participating in everyday activities with your host family or student and integrating each other’s cultures and differences into your lives helps the experience as a whole. She also had the opportunity to learn about the same country from two different perspectives when she hosted a second student from Argentina.
Margaret and Matthew C. hosted Andrey from Brazil and saw that by sharing their culture, Andrey became a true member of the family. He began to see them as a second family and knew that he could rely on them if he was struggling. Chris M., who hosted Adriana from Germany, found that the majority of his memories with his host student were of seemingly insignificant events and details, such as daily conversations or having coffee together. He found that these moments were enhanced by Adriana’s genuine enjoyment and interest in each new experience.
Learn more about Sheri’s experience here.
Want to hear more about Chris’s perspective as a host parent? Read about his experience here.
Want more details on Margaret and Matthew’s experience? You can read the full blog here.
Going on big trips is a fun way to get to know your host student and for your host student to see the country, however you don’t need to travel through a country to truly experience it! This blog post lists 20 ordinary activities many families do regularly every year like attending the homecoming football game, doing a jigsaw puzzle, going to the local Dairy Queen, getting lost in a corn maze (with a small glimmer of hope that you’ll actually escape), carving pumpkins, enjoying Thanksgiving dinner, going to state fairs, and more! These are local activities that may seem “ordinary” to us, but are a window into American culture! It’s the same in other countries; they have annual and everyday activities that we’ve never heard of. It just goes to show that some of the most everyday events can be some of the best experiences.
Spending time together, whether going to the grocery store or cooking meals, can offer a lot of insight to both the student and family when it comes to learning about each other, sharing cultures, and making connections. Attending school and family events together is a great way to support each other and allow the student to experience something new. Supporting a student’s involvement with extracurricular activities like clubs and sports or hobbies can be a great way to make connections in and outside of the family. When exchange students are asked about their favorite memories with their host families, it’s usually the little moments like having breakfast together, playing board games, or sharing inside jokes that stand out most.
Gain even more insight about being a host family here.
Discover ways to spend time with your hosted student here.
Being an exchange student is challenging on multiple levels. So, how do you adjust? How do you make the most of your experience? When do you feel like you’re finally adjusting? It varies from person-to-person and country-to-country, but many students find that interacting with their host family, classmates, and participating in extracurriculars help them adjust.
Amanda Sawyer, an alumna from Spain, 2018-19, said she realized the moment she was adjusting to the new culture was when her classmates invited her to be a part of their group on a trip to Italy she was unsure about going on. She thought the trip was amazing and felt comfortable because her classmates showed genuine interest in friendship. Working to build friendships at school can be one of the most rewarding aspects of your time abroad, but it can feel hard. So how do you make friends, especially if you are practicing your language skills? You’ll be surprised how much of an effect saying “Hi” regularly to someone can encourage them to open up for potential friendship. Try to take that first step! Many students like Amanda study abroad to learn another language. Learning the language is important, but it’s a gateway to building experiences, relationships, and cultural understanding.
Stephen Zhang, a student who came to the U.S. from China, 2007-08, was interested in learning the day-to-day routine of an American family. He learned about the daily routine of his host family and wholeheartedly became a part of it. Some of his most memorable experiences were visiting his host sister in college and blasting Phil Collins in the car on a drive through the countryside with his host dad. Years later, when Stephen was working on his Ph.D. in the U.S., he was invited to be a groomsman at his host sister’s wedding.
Want to learn more about Amanda’s adventures? Read the full interview here.
Want to learn more about Stephen and his host family? Experience the full AFS Effect here.
Are you interested, nervous, and excited to live with a family abroad? Many of us have been there, so read more about what it may be like here.
Whether it’s hosting or studying abroad, there is a lot to be gained by joining AFS in its mission of building a more just and peaceful world through cultural exchange. You are probably excited for the adventure that lies ahead, and you should be! Just remember that the most significant and lasting memories will likely be those daily meals, coffee conversations, and random family game nights.
Written by AFS Volunteer Tori Anaya.